I think I should title this post, “The power of positive thinking” in honor of my psychologist father. He is always talking about positive self talk, believing in yourself, etc. Well, going into this race, I had somehow decided that I was going to win. I didn’t care if the whole Boulder Nation showed up, this race was mine. I don’t think I was being cocky, just determined. I knew my training and I just had a feeling. I told no one about this- not my trail buddy, Barry, not my wife, not even the awesome Jason and Weezy, who were kind enough to give me a ride to the start and who I just non-challantly told, “I just want to finish” before directing the conversation back to them. I was so determined that I didn’t bother memorizing the course, predicting aid station splits, or looking up past results of every registrant, things I will usually do in my anal-ness (though ultrasignup.com usually makes the latter much easier). Course record was 4:20 in 2009, and I was thinking 4:30 seemed possible (although frequent course changes make comparing times difficult, evidenced by the 5:18 winning time in 2010).
Sweet H20 50k is a 2-loop, wonderful race in the Georgia state park of the same name (well, technically it is Sweetwater Creek state park, not Sweet H20) and is one of the more competitive trail races in the southeast. I found it to be a nice mix of fast flats and hills, technical and smooth, water, foilage, and dirt.
I had a typical, 4-star warmup in the beautiful, 55-deg temps that would rise to a humid 75. At the start-line briefing, however, the RD informed us that the monster thunderstorms that dumped 2” of rain on us in the past 12 hours would result in a course change. Instead of the normal rope-assisted, 2x crossing of the now-raging creek, we would add a 1.5 mile paved section.
The raging “creek”- yup, no crossing it this year [note: I didn’t carry a camera, so all pictures courtesy of my fellow runners and their blogs- thanks, y’all]
With that briefing, the race started and I found myself in a fast-moving pack. I recognized Jay Aldous, visiting from SLC, so we chatted briefly, and I also met Jim Bickelhaupt, the previous year champ. The 6:18 first mile seemed brisk, but not overly strenuous. After 1.5 miles of pavement, we plunged onto the not-too muddy but rather-twisty singletrack. I settled into the back of the 5 person lead pack. We found water almost immediately with a shin-deep river crossing, then a knee-deep creek crossing, before the trail began following the Sweetwater Creek, occasionally plunging into its now-flooded banks. Coming from Utah with the typical long climbs to start most trail races that I usually ease into, the fairly flat trail resulted in a much faster run than normal. But, I adjusted and just focused on biding my time and relaxing. The pack got stacked up at a few of the more technical areas (long wooden stairs, old deadfall, places where the river overflowed its banks onto the trail), which was a bit annoying. I took a leak to let the pack get ahead.
The first, and easiest, water crossing
Despite what seemed a fast speed, I was surprised how quickly I caught back up, which was reassuring. The pack generally stayed together past aid 2, reaching the infamous hills together. What the course lacks in long climbs are made up for in very steep, numerous “rollers” of sometimes surprising severity (as the RD says, “The hill you just suffered up is far easier than the ones that lie ahead”)- to give you an idea, mile 10/26 was my only 10+ min mile (11:53, 12:47), and was a full 3 minutes slower than the next slowest mile. The first set of rollers follow a sewer line, and seems to stretch on in a long-line of hills. I rather enjoyed them, though, particularly when we reached the open hill named Top of The World.
Sewer line- it’s like a never-ending roller coaster. Minus the coaster part.
We reached aid 3 at mile 11 in 1:30, at which time I decided to break up the pack. I surged hard, increasing my pace 60+ sec/mile. The pack strung out, with only Dennis Bauer holding on. I saw Barry on a short out-and-back- he ran ended up running a 5:36 in his first-ever ultra despite minimal training due to injury- awesome work! We left TOTW to enter the Power Line, more hills that were now even steeper and longer than the sewer line- unrunnable up, and almost unrunnable down. Fortunately, there were only 2 or 3 of these before we reached the creek again. I will say, however, that I had been adequately warned about all these hills, and the mental preparation made them actually enjoyable and relatively short. More like hurdles rather than barriers. (Plus being used to 4000 ft climbs in the Rockies makes any of these climbs seem short... although it is a lot easier to say that now than when I was trudging up them).
The docile part of Power line
Dennis hung with me up Jack’s Hill and aid 4. The course enters a wonderfully-fast, narrow, pine-needle covered singletrack here, which we flew down before completing the first loop (2:08 for 16 miles) and being deposited on the 1.5 mile, paved re-route as we started the second lap. Feeling each other out, the pace increased even more, with a 6:15 mile 17. Interestingly, as fast as I thought we ran at the start of the race for the first 8 miles, every one of those miles was faster on lap 2! Dennis seemed relaxed and posed some serious competition.
At the start of the singletrack at mile 17.5, I stopped for a 30 second pit stop. I imagine Dennis was grateful for being spotted a lead like that. Feeling relieved, I quickly discovered the trail was now much slicker thanks to 500 wet shoes that had traversed it a few hours previous, requiring careful footing and a few falls. I ran hard to catch up, but was surprised to time Dennis a full 60 seconds ahead of me at mile 20- he was hauling! I also noted the creek had noticeably risen since lap 1, with one crossing now almost waist deep (I think we had 20 crossings at least ankle deep, so my shoes were squishy the entire race). I kept telling myself that I would still win the race, and just needed to run my race and Dennis would come back to me. After 4 miles of solitude, he rapidly reappeared at mile 24 and seemed to be hurting. When I passed him, he simple commented that he was dead, and that the fast road miles had been a bit much. I encouraged him but tried to increase the distance on the steep parts.
Even better the second time around…
Much to his credit, Dennis hung near me for a few miles, up and down sewer line. He was very stubborn, only slowing falling back. He made a wrong turn somewhere near TOTW, unfortunately, which permanently set him back. By aid 3, he was 4 minutes behind. On the out-and-back, I saw Jay and Matthew Hoffman 10 minutes back, dueling for third. Interestingly, my split to aid 3 was identical to the first lap. I hadn’t slowed down at all over that section.
The last 6 miles were appropriately painful, though I had targets as I began lapping runners. The stumbles increased as the pace decreased, losing one min/mile versus lap 1. I reflected a bit on how my goal was coming true, though too much internal reflection is difficult at this point as your legs feel as though they are trying to detach and/or eat themselves, and your body is doing its best to force you to lay down and cease the forced nuttiness. I crossed the finish line in 4:23:20. Dennis finished just 3 minutes back, and Jay claimed third in 4:32. Total distance of 32.5 miles. Not sure how much elevation- SportTracks says 5500, but Garmin Connect says 2800. Probably somewhere between.
In my whole running career, I can think of maybe 3 or 4 other times where I was so determined and set on a goal and then met it. Believe in yourself, do the appropriate work, and anything is possible. Anything.
If anyone is still reading this lengthy monologue, I have to give a final shout out the RD. This is an excellent race that I highly recommend. Great, challenging course with a wide variety of terrain, good aid stations, and some of the best course markings I’ve seen. You can tell he loves this race and puts a lot of time into it. Thanks, Johnny.